At a time when open government and access to public records is more important than ever, Representatives , , , , and have introduced a bill that appears to make government less open and less accountable by attempting to further limit the kinds of records that can be accessed under the Access to Public Records Act (APRA).
House bill 5098, to be heard Wednesday, January 18 at the Rise of the House in room 205 of the State House, will “provide that preliminary drafts, notes, impressions, memoranda, working papers and work products including those involving research at state institutions of higher education on commercial, scientific, artistic, technical or scholarly issues, whether in electronic or other format, would not be deemed a public record for purposes of public access to public records.”
The new language doesn’t broaden the exemption that already exists, but simply specifies a subset of documents that would be exempt under the current language. The bill is more or less neutral as far as its effects go, but the optics of the bill, which seems an attempt to further limit the public’s right to know, rows directly against the current of a more open government. Instead of working to strengthen exemptions to the law, the General Assembly should be seeking to open it up, and a good place to start would be the “preliminary drafts, notes, impressions, memoranda, working papers and work products” of government work.
What the APRA conceals from the public under this clause are the building blocks of final projects, experiments, reports and designs. This denies the public access to the thought processes and decision making that took place with public money and in the public interest.
What the public misses when this happens is a glimpse into the motivations of those in charge of projects and their creative process. The public is denied access to ideas and methodologies that were, for whatever reason, rejected, modified, or dismissed. The public’s ability to determine why a project was done one way and not another is compromised. We will see the final result, whether it be a bridge or a report, but we will never know if, along the way, the final result could have been improved upon by the inclusion of a rejected idea, because those ideas are hidden behind a legal wall. The final projects, once unveiled, may have a fatal flaw or may be biased because a simple fix was rejected, and not only will the public not know, the public won’t know what it doesn’t know.
The APRA was designed to make the operations of government more transparent. It is an important tool not only for reporters, but for anyone interested in understanding the government. The public cannot be better served by keeping information from public view. In putting forth this bill, sponsors are demonstrating that their instincts run exactly counter to the best interests of the public, who desire transparency, not more secrets.